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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

Savage Night

cover image By: Thompson, Jim (male)
Publisher: Lion Books (155)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 381: PS3539 .H6733 S28 1953
Contributor: J. Lukin


Era: 1950s Author as on Cover: Jim Thompson Geographic Locale: Pearsdale, NY (fictional town); a small Long Island college town, with excursions to New York City and Vermont Date of Publication: 1953  |  Original Date: 1953 Setting: urban; places of transience -- bars, a boarding house, a hotel, a railroad car, a writer's retreat Motives: murder

Plot Summary

Retired assassin Charlie Bigger is summoned from Arizona by a shady crime boss known only as The Man. The Man needs a turncoat bag man bumped off before the rat can turn State's evidence; he sends Charlie to the Long Island town where the witness is working. Charlie is sure that one of the town's inhabitants is an agent of The Man hired to keep an eye on him, but who can it be? Is it the Sheriff? Is it the witness's seductive wife, with whom Charlie collaborates in planning the hit? Is it the old professor emeritus who runs a bakery? Is all this paranoia doing Charlie any good? No, it only serves to put Charlie in the hands of his worst enemy -- himself. Charlie fails at his commission, loses the favor of many people who are well-disposed toward him, and spends his last days on an abandoned farm in Vermont, where he hears wild goats scream and sees vaginas growing out of the ground. Has he lost his reason, or is he already dead and in Hell?

Major Characters

Sheriff Bill Summers adult male, middle-aged, "a tall rawboned guy with sharp but friendly blue eyes, and a graying coffee-stained mustache," henpecked and frustrated but honest, sheriff

Charlie Bigger aka Little Bigger, aka Carl Bigelow, adult male, 35 years old, 5 feet tall with a full set of false teeth and thick corrective lenses, gas station attendant, college student, baker, hit man

The Man adult male, political leader, businessman, and crime boss, never described

Fruit Jar aka Murph, adult male, chunky, slow-witted ex-bootlegger, used car dealer, flunky for The Man
Fay Winroy adult female, husky-voiced seductress, former nightclub singer, unhappy with her life and wanting to kill

Jake Winroy adult male, six feet tall, 140 pounds, former bagman for the mob, barber, drowning his fears in alcohol

Mr. Kendall adult male, dignified and imposing old professor emeritus who runs a bakery
Bessie Summers adult female, middle-aged, hatchet-faced, gossipy hostess who can be shrewish and sarcastic or kind and maternal

Ruth Dorne adult female, early 20s, voluptuous, born without a left calf or knee and with a splay-fingered left hand, student and housemaid

Level of Violence

violence is described in detail to create the utmost disgust. Two people have their throats cut, one is stabbed nonfatally, one is locked in a freezer for two hours nonfatally, one is dismembered with an axe, one is attacked by tuberculosis.


sexual relations are associated with violence or disgust, with one party the aggressor and the other a victim.

Gender Roles

narrator Charlie sees women as either femmes fatales, mother-figures, or innocent kids. Men are all potential threats to him. The events of the novel suggest that his views are mistaken, that women can incorporate mixtures of good and bad, and that men can sometimes be completely benevolent toward him.


the major characters are undifferentiated European-Americans.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

most of the characters are social drinkers. One lives in a state of terror for the effects of which he uses alcohol and Amytal.

Law Enforcement

there's much discussion of corrupt New York City cops, but the officials of Pearsdale seem to be acting in good faith. The county attorney bases his views of people in part on their social connections.

Subject Headings

New York (State)/ Paranoia/ Murder

Psychological Elements

one character tends toward masochism, seeming to enjoy an acquaintance-rape that she experiences. Two are willing to kill in order to improve their lot in life. The only character who really has problems with rational conduct, however, seems to be the protagonist, Charlie. The smallest slight fills him with shame and self-loathing which he is inclined to assuage by inflicting violence on others. His sense of being trapped blossoms into paranoia: he comes to believe that he is physically shrinking while his enemies grow larger at his expense. By the final chapters, he has only the most tenuous connection to reality, as he chases the wild goats who stand on their heads and scream after they fertilize each zigzagging row of windblown pudenda, and the power of speech has been abandoned in favor of grunting and gestures made by people who know there's no way out of the thing in the kitchen. He grows smaller and weaker under the goats and the crippled girl's right knee drags along and he welcomes oblivion.